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Vive la Difference!
Embrace it while you can...

by Rita Ayers
April 12, 2006

I have followed with great interest the Partial Observer articles by David Smith, a Mainer living in Alabama, and the comments in response from Jennifer, a Southerner living in Maine. They both write well and make valid points about the differences that still exist today in the North and the South. It all makes for very entertaining reading, particularly since I don't happen to be in the dilemma they both find themselves in – that is to say, I am a born and bred Southerner and call myself fortunate to still live in the South.  I would not dare jump on the bandwagon and perhaps add fuel to the fire by pointing out even more differences. Still, there are other observations that can be made that I hope both of them will consider.
Do we really want the experience of living in Maine to be the same as the experience of living in Alabama? Already, I lament the slow but gradual transformations that are homogenizing our country. In my local community, there is currently a battle ensuing over whether or not to allow Wal-Mart to build their millionth new super center here. Those in dissent point out that there is already a Wal-Mart less than seven miles away; they also fear that it will drive the unique businesses in our charming downtown area out of business, as has happened in so many small communities across the country. While there is certainly something to be said for chains and franchises, I like the notion of really being able to experience a geographic region through its unique shops and restaurants.
There are other, more subtle, changes to fret over as well. In my humble opinion, our Southern accents are gradually disappearing. Those who are currently following American Idol and listening to Southern contestant Kelly Pickler would probably disagree with me; nevertheless, it's something I sense in our viewpoints of ourselves. Southerners who have ever been treated as something less than intelligent because of that same accent know what I mean.
A portion of the entire culture of this area is centered on the much-revered azalea. We have the Azalea Trail Run, a well-known 10K race which has meandered through the azalea-banked streets of Mobile for 29 years; a tourist attraction (Bellingrath Gardens) built around showing off masses of azaleas; an impressive court of fifty Azalea Trail Maids, chosen annually from among area high school seniors, wearing Southern style hoop skirts to adorn festivals, sporting events, parades, and the aforementioned gardens; numerous streets, subdivisions, hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, etc. bearing the name Azalea; and even the nickname, "The Azalea City."
Yet, as new neighborhoods spring forth, I find that the landscapers and homeowners aren't planting the trees and bushes that make Mobile and the surrounding areas so spectacular in the spring. Sadly, a disease a decade ago caused the loss of hundreds of dogwood trees – not just in this area, but stretching all the way up to New England. While the older sections of town still boast azalea bushes that sometimes reach heights of twelve feet or more, a drive through freshly created subdivisions yields views of uniformly bland, flat lawns. I know it takes time to create the dazzling bursts of pink, purple, and white, but we won't ever get there if we don't at least plant the small bushes to grow!
I'm not the first to notice this perceived decline in attention to beautification. An organization called ReBloom Mobile seeks to rekindle interest in the azalea, much as a widespread effort 75 years ago created all the picturesque scenery initially.
Last summer, my daughter marched in two Fourth of July parades; one was in Bristol, Rhode Island, while the other took place later that same afternoon in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Because she was celebrating her 21st birthday on this same day, we decided to make the drive all the way from Alabama (no flying for my hubby since 9/11!) in order to commemorate the occasion with her. As I watched the first group of Revolutionary-style clad soldiers march proudly down the street, then stop to fire their muskets, it struck me that I had never in my whole life witnessed an Independence Day parade. I absolutely loved it! The Wakefield parade featured military units from every branch of the service, young ball teams displaying their team colors and championship banners, several drum and bugle corps from across the country (one of which my daughter was in), and floats and horses and clowns and people and American flags galore. My heart spilled over with pride and patriotism, feelings which continued on into the evening as the fireworks set the night sky ablaze.
Why, at my advanced age, had I never seen a Fourth of July parade? Because, my friends, we simply don't have those wonderful events in South Alabama. I never thought about it before, and maybe it's just because it's too blamed hot to march around on asphalt on the Fourth of July. In reality, though, I'm certain it's because the heritage and culture of the New England area is steeped in American history, and thus, they celebrate that accordingly.  To my knowledge, Paul Revere never rode through here, nor were any of the founding fathers of the Constitution born in Alabama. 
I can't go whale watching here as we did in Cape Ann, Massachusetts (what a treat!) or cross cold New Hampshire mountain streams on picturesque covered bridges. I can't ponder what each huge chunk of formless granite pulled from a Vermont quarry might become as it is transported down curvy, mountainous roads, all while enjoying a huge stack of pancakes topped off with fresh maple syrup. On the flip side of that, I imagine that the watermelon and blueberry and strawberry festivals we enjoy don't occur in the New England states, either. There are even other Southern offerings that are unique to that particular state or area, such as digging for emeralds in North Carolina or seeing an underground waterfall in Tennessee.
I recognize that both David and Jennifer are primarily pointing out North-South differences in terms of people, economics, race relations, and personal values, rather than the cultural and geographic variances that I have focused on. I will say that throughout last summer's trip – through twenty states and two Canadian provinces - we encountered friendly people. Their accents were sometimes different than ours; their pay grades, educational levels, value structures, religion, philosophical viewpoints, ethnic backgrounds, and even their level of manners ran the gamut as well. For my money, I am glad that those differences are still there. It allows me to broaden my horizons, if I should so choose. Within another generation or two, I fear we'll all have no choice other than to shop at Wal-Mart, eat at McDonald's, stay at Best Western, and vote for the same presidential candidate – who will be a woman, by the way!

About the Author:
Rita Ayers has traveled extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe but knows there's no place like home.

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